It looks like a tale, but the most famous peak in Europe for a day become a “war game” scenery.
Really? Have a look to this fragment of history hidden in the pages of an Italian newspaper very popular in the last century called “La Stampa”.
Unfortunately the rhetoric typical of articles about sport during the Fascist dictatorship has darkened a bit the fascination of this climb by the Italian Normal route, performed with minimum mountaineering gear, according to the spirit of first ascents.
Let’s make a jump few years before......In a small town near the Western Alps called Aosta, on 9th January 1934, General Celestino Bes, inspector of Alpine Troops inaugurated the “Scuola Militare Centrale di Alpinismo” (Central Military Mountaineering School).
Acknowledging a suggestion of Umberto Balestrieri, a former officer of Alpine Troops during the I WW and famous academic climber in Italian Alpine Club: “After the war’s lesson, it’s unthinkable that the alpine soldiers could get out from being also climbers”, the Italian Army Staff decided to create this particular drilling structure.
In few months the school started different training courses in disciplines related to the mountain: geology, glaciology, meteorology and physiology in order to train a group of officers and alpine soldiers called “Alpieri” specialized in mountaineering and fighting techniques with very small units.
Obviously the best climbers and skiers of the epoch choose to do their military service or to cooperate with the school as mountaineering instructors. So it was possible to undertake many climbing enterprises of very high level, quite “impossible” with the rough technical gear available. We can remember: the oath of 200 “Alpieri” on the Mont Blanc’s summit reached at the same time by several routes on 17th-22th June, 1935 (1) or the traverse of Grandes Murailles massif from Valpelline to Valtournanche undertaken by 600 soldiers in fighting trim of battalion “Duca degli Abruzzi” just founded inside the school (19th-20th, June, 1936) (2).
“30 cordate di Alpini sulla vetta del Cervino - Una superba impresa”
“Thirty rope parties of Alpine soldiers on the Matterhorn’s top. The exceptional ascent of a company of Scuola Militare of Aosta. A bivy and the departure at midnight. 5 hours of climb.”
Breuil, 30th July
A whole company of “Alpieri” of “Scuola Militare di Alpinismo”, splitted in 30 rope parties equipped with rucksacks, ice-axes and weapons (guns, light machine guns and mortars) arrived this morning on Matterhorn’s peak top.
The “Scuola Militare di Alpinismo” in Aosta, with its superb results reached with the experiments and the drills of these last years has proved that the “mass” mountaineering takes place of the “individual” and an enterprise that once upon a time was reserved only to few virtuous climbers, nowadays may be undertaken by whole units of alpine soldiers (3). So this is possible thanks to studies and experiences, but first of all thanks to the elements that our military mountaineering have in large amount, both as soldiers and technical equipments.
After the brilliant drilling period on Monte Rosa when was contemporarily climbed all the summits from Valle Anzasca and Valsesia flanks, with a worldwide importance record, the battalion “Duca degli Abruzzi” moved their units from Col d’Olen to Lys Glacier.
The battalion, from Alagna crossed the passes on the Sesia-Lys ridge joining the Bors Glacier; then a group of 50 “Alpieri” reached the Lysjoch by Capanna (Hut) Gnifetti, climbed the two summits of Lyskamm (m 4508) and went down to Colle Felik (m 4068) up to Capanna Sella, while the rest of battalion joined the same hut by Lyskamm Nose and Felik Glacier.
From this target the battalion got down to Breuil by the passes of Bettolina and Bettaforca; the 103th Company of “Alpieri” was entrusted with a “mass” climb at Matterhorn splitted in 30 rope parties. Some of these, more bold leaved immediately towards Capanna (Hut) “Principe Luigi Amedeo” (4); the rest of the company during the night joined Rifugio (Hut) Oriondè. The bivy was quite comfortable thanks to good weather conditions.
Exactly at midnight the rope parties resumed their’s journey; on the “Piccolo Leone” Glacier stopped for a while near the little cross in memory of the famous mountain guide Carrel of Valtournanche, then continued on the flank of Colle del Leone (5). After this sequence, easily climbed nevertheless its difficulty, the wide unit joined Hut “Luigi Amedeo” (m 3840). The patrols that arrived before, after the bivy, had already left to equip the route where the wide company had to climb to reach the summit. The ascent, as you can understand, wasn’t so easy; moreover it was the continue risk of rock falls. The lead parties provided to reinforce the existing fixed ropes on the chimneys, quite damaged by bad weather. The “Grande Tour’s” (6) walls was climbed quickly, then the rope parties followed the “Mauvais Pas” (7) with an horizontal fixed rope completely reinforced.
From the observatory at Breuil it was possible to distinguish the parties that climbed very quickly, nevertheless the individual heavy gear of every alpine soldier: it was a marvellous spectacle! After the “Linceul” (8), the soldiers climbed “Corda Tyndall” (9) and joined the “Cravatta” (10) going on towards Matterhorn’s headwall. The first patrol joined the top exactly at 8 a.m. after climbing the “Scala Giordano” (11), taking less than 5 hours from Capanna Luigi Amedeo. A record time, specially if you think that the alpine soldiers was completely armed and they had to carry the light machine guns and mortars. As the rope parties reached Matterhorn’s top, after the indication of their arrival with the “saluto al Duce” (12) followed by a fire blanks, they started the descent for the same route with great regularity.
Arrived in Breuil, the 103th Company “Alpieri” was praised by General Micheletti, commander of “Taurinense” Division in front of battalion “Duca degli Abruzzi” completely drawn up. With this wonderful enterprise the alpine soldiers of “Scuola Militare” in Aosta have showed again their energy, strenght and power, unforgettable in the Italian mountaineering annals.
Notes & References(1)“Il giuramento al Re e al Duce di duecento reclute alpine sulla vetta del Monte Bianco”. La Stampa della Sera, Mercoledì-Giovedì 26-27 Giugno 1935.
(2) Notiziario Alpino (1936), pp 6-9; Rivista Mensile del Club Alpino Italiano (1938), pp 390-391 for the new route opened on descent from Colle des Grandes Murailles by Cpt. Felice Boffa, Gustavo Gaia and Guido Alberto Rivetti with 20 “Alpieri”, 20th June 1936.
(3) Nevertheless the good level of mountaineering training, this method unfortunately caused some victims during the drilling activity. On 13th July, 1939, a rope party composed by Lt. Giovanni da Lago, Officer Cadet Federico Busancano and two non-commissioned officers Antonio Furlano and Mario Briasco, after the ascent of Punte Patrì (Gran Paradiso sector) fell down to the summit ridge, probably for the break of a snow cornice.
Ref.: “Tragica sciagura sul Gran Paradiso”. La Stampa, Venerdì 14 Luglio 1939.
(4) This hut, dedicated to Prince Luigi Amedeo di Savoia, was builted on a ledge under the “Grande Tour” in 1905 thanks to a financing by Turin’s section of Club Alpino Italiano. Provided of 15 beds it become too small to house the increasing number of people that climb the normal route of Matterhorn every year. Then the wooden structure degenerated quickly cause the snow accumulations and the ice slides, so the Matterhorn’s mountain guides decide to replace it with a more comfortable building.
Inaugurated on 20th July, 1969, the new hut (dedicated to Jean Antoine Carrel, one among the first climbers of Italian normal route) has 50 beds and a room with a little kitchen.
The old hut was definitely removed in 2004, then restored and finally setted in the court of Matterhorn’s mountain guides office in Breuil-Cervinia. From 2009 it’s possible to visit it: a real piece of mountaineering history!
(5) One of the first difficulties on Italian normal route is crossing Testa del Leone to reach Colle del Leone. This traverse, quite easy in good conditions, follows a system of ledges sometimes on rubble rock with very exposed sequences and a serious risk of stone falls.
(6) The Italian normal route of Matterhorn has an unique peculiarity worldwide: every sequence has a particular name coming from the fantasy of first climbers or the mountain’s shape.
Guido Rey,"The Matterhorn", Fisher Unwin London, 1907; pp 308-309 (notes).
Alfonso Bernardi, “Il Gran Cervino”, Zanichelli Editore, 1986; p 147 (out text pics) for a vintage portfolio of the sequences on Italian normal route.
“Grande Tour” (literally: big tower) is a high step that interrupts the ridge. At its bottom was builted Rifugio (Hut) Carrrel.
(7) “Mauvais Pas” (literally: worse sequence) is a narrow ledge exposed in the mid-air with a little overhang at its end. Difficulty: about III degree.
(8) “Linceul” (literally: the sheet) is a steep and exposed snow field, quite dangerous on mountain’s bad conditions.
(9) “Corda Tyndall” (literally: rope of Tyndall) is a fixed rope hanging down a 40 metres vertical wall. With “La Cheminée” or “Lo Ciarfiou” (literally: the chimney) a perfect 12 meters dihedral completely disappeared in Summer 2003 after a land slide was one of the most typical sequences of the route.
(10) “La Cravatta” or "Collier de la Vierge" (literally: the tie): a large snowy ledge well visible form Breuil that divides in two the upper part of Pic Tyndall South-West face.
(11) “Scala Giordano” (literally: ladder of Giordano): is a rope ladder fixed on the last overhanging section of the headwall.
(12) “Saluto al Duce” a formal salute with the right arm up introduced by the Fascist leader (“Duce”) Benito Mussolini.
External LinksSport Section of Centro Addestramento Alpino (former Scuola Militare Alpina)
Società Guide del Cervino (Italian Matterhorn's mountain guides)